ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If the best trades sometimes are the ones you never make, how do you explain Bob Melvin for Storm Davis, a trade intended to satisfy goals no longer relevant to either side?
The Orioles wanted Davis to bolster a starting rotation that suddenly appears formidable without him. The Kansas City Royals wanted Melvin as insurance for two scenarios that never unfolded and left him expecting another trade.
Maybe it's fitting the deal was considered an afterthought when it was announced Dec. 11, moments after the Royals electrified the winter meetings by sending two-time Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen to the New York Mets.
At least the Orioles got what they wanted, even if Davis, their highest-paid pitcher, opens the season as a low-profile reliever. The Royals' motives are harder to figure, but one thing seems clear: They wanted Davis gone.
Strange, considering that for all his detractors, the 30-year-old Davis is still the fourth youngest active pitcher with 100 or more career wins, behind Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens and Saberhagen.
Strange, considering that no less an authority than Danny Tartabull believes his former Kansas City teammate will be an important addition for the Orioles -- perhaps even more as a reliever than as a starter.
Davis was only 1-4 with two saves and a 4.45 ERA in 42 relief appearances last season, but Tartabull recalls a period between June 2 and July 26 in which he allowed only four earned runs in 36 1/3 innings.
"He was in my mind probably the best setup man in the game," Tartabull said yesterday after getting one of only two hits off Davis, who worked the first four innings ofthe Orioles' 5-2 victory over the New York Yankees.
"He pitched that well coming in for two or three innings and shutting the opposing team down. I was surprised they traded him because he was so valuable toward the end of the year. I definitely think he's going to be very valuable to that staff."
Tartabull evidently forgot that Davis allowed runs in 13 of his last 18 appearances, finishing 3-9 with a 4.96 ERA. And he evidently forgot the sentiments of manager Hal McRae, who removed Davis from the starting rotation in the first place.
Still, his comments were timely, for the Orioles seem prepared to bump Davis from their rotation to create a spot for another righthander, Jose Mesa. Davis has a 1.74 ERA this spring, but said yesterday he would not object to pitching in middle-inning relief.
In fact, he's so happy to return to the Orioles, he claimed, "I just want to wear the uniform," adding, "If I had to go play with somebody else, I'd quit." Funny he should put it that way. Melvin could be playing with somebody else tomorrow.
The trade reduced the Kansas City payroll by $1 million -- motivation enough these days -- but the way Davis is throwing this spring, it certainly appears he could have helped a rotation weakened considerably by the loss of Saberhagen.
Instead, the Royals are stuck with an extra catcher. Adding Melvin made sense if Mike MacFarlane recovered slowly from knee surgery, or Brent Mayne went elsewhere in a separate deal. But both scenarios were far-fetched from the start.
MacFarlane returned last September (although he did not catch) and Mayne is a former No. 1 draft pick, not to mention a lefthanded hitter. Meanwhile, Melvin is 7-for-17 this spring with a home run.
"I was told when I first got to Kansas City, 'Feel at home, find a place to stay,' " Melvin said by telephone from Haines City, Fla. "Early in camp I went in and asked Hal, 'What's the deal?'
"He said, 'I'm sure something is going to happen, but I don't know what it is now.'
"Yeah, I'm confused. I knew they had some catchers over here, but I just figured they had a plan. They don't -- unless it's yet to unfold."
Thus, all signs point to an overwhelming desire by the Royals to dump Davis. They even assumed $400,000 of his $2.3 million salary to escape the three-year, $6 million free-agent contract he signed under different management in the winter
Royals GM Herk Robinson said Davis could win 12 to 15 games starting for the Orioles, but the rap on Davis is that he's passive, that he opts out of pressure situations. Fair or not, it's one reason he got traded from Baltimore to San Diego, from San Diego to Oakland, and now from Kansas City to Baltimore.
The A's, however, proved Davis can thrive under the right conditions -- specifically, with a strong bullpen and steady run support. He was 35-14 in two full seasons with Oakland, and many in baseball believe he made a mistake signing with
Davis said he wanted security for his family, and he got it. Now he's back with his close friend Glenn Davis, back where he started, back to a place he loves. He said he's tired of moving, joked that his wife will divorce him if he's traded again.
There isn't any danger of that happening, not the way his sharp-breaking curveball froze Pat Kelly and Mike Gallego on called third strikes yesterday, not the way he elevated his fastball for the same result on a swinging Matt Nokes.
Storm Davis makes out fine.
Bob Melvin, who knows?